TORONTO – The word “crisis” is now being attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs and after just seven wins in the last 22 games it really isn’t much of a stretch.
There has been an unmistakable fragility to this group during a string of inconsistent performances that are almost beyond explanation. After all, it was just 96 hours ago that the Leafs thought they had started to turn things around with a thorough 7-3 victory over the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
Then they travelled to Pittsburgh, allowed a goal against on the very first shift of Monday’s game and ended up getting beaten by a Penguins team missing eight (8!) regulars from its lineup. That was followed by an even lower point on Tuesday, when the Florida Panthers waltzed into Air Canada Centre and completely outworked the home team.
“We simply got embarrassed,” Leafs winger Mason Raymond said after a 3-1 loss that was as painful as any his team has suffered all season.
"I don’t think guys can be happy with that at all. I think we got embarrassed at home. I think we got beat all over the ice in almost all situations. We’re not putting anywhere close to 60 minutes together."
The rope has essentially been slipping from Toronto’s grasp for a good six weeks now. This has been a slow slide – not nearly as dramatic as the one that got former coach Ron Wilson fired in March 2012, but certainly the most troubling period since Randy Carlyle was brought in to replace him.
The strain is finally starting to show.
Carlyle has been remarkably even-keel and upbeat during 36 games where his team has been hit with a series of injuries and suspensions. He might as well have added "Keep Calm and Carry On" to the slogans painted on the walls of its dressing room. However, that line of thinking clearly no longer applies, not with the team playing like this.
On Tuesday, Carlyle was visibly agitated behind the bench and laid into his players on a couple occasions while watching them fall behind the Panthers 3-0 through two periods. He also kept Jake Gardiner off the ice for more than 21 straight minutes after the defenceman committed a turnover in the second period that led directly to a Sean Bergenheim breakaway. For the coach, it was evidence of a "young player making young mistakes."
He later offered a fairly blunt assessment of where the Leafs stood and even responded to one reporter’s use of the ‘C’ word – "crisis" – by agreeing that it applied to the current situation.
"It’s hard to be positive because there’s a frustration level … when you don’t have success and when your team plays the way it played tonight," Carlyle said. "The coaching staff is frustrated, the players are frustrated, I’m sure management is frustrated and I’m sure our fans are frustrated."
You certainly don’t need a Twitter account to figure that out. The boos started early in the game against Florida because the Leafs got off to yet another poor start. Tomas Fleischmann opened the scoring with a shot over James Reimer’s shoulder just 3:29 in – putting Toronto behind 1-0 for the fourth time in five games.
It got even worse in the second period with the Leafs unable to clear the puck from their own zone before Bergenheim made it 2-0 and captain Dion Phaneuf getting victimized for a bad giveaway that resulted in a Brad Boyes goal.
Even though Toronto had a much stronger effort in the third period, outshooting Florida 13-5 and ending Scott Clemmensen’s shutout bid with Raymond’s 11th goal of the season, it was nowhere near good enough to salvage any positives from this night.
"We’ve got to find a way to play better and that’s all of us," Phaneuf said. "I’ve got (to be) better. I made some mistakes tonight that are unacceptable."
A visibly frustrated Reimer challenged all of his teammates to "look in the mirror" after Tuesday’s loss. Like Phaneuf, he was around for the 1-9-1 skid that saw the 2011-12 Maple Leafs plummet out of playoff contention just before Carlyle was hired to replace Wilson. That was the team that drove the 18-wheeler off the cliff – in the words of former general manager Brian Burke – and while this group includes plenty of different personnel, there is a slightly familiar feeling between then and now.
Adding to the challenge of pulling out of this tailspin is the fact that Trevor Smith was lost to a broken bone in his right hand after blocking a shot from Florida’s Shawn Matthias in the third period on Tuesday. He joins fellow centres David Bolland and Tyler Bozak in the injury ward.
However, the Leafs only need to look at a team like Pittsburgh to realize that they could have it much worse than they do.
"There’s never an excuse – injuries, (being) tired, it’s all BS," Reimer said. "Those are excuses and they’re useless. What it comes down to is your will and your heart and your character. We should be able to win with half of our guys out."
Perhaps after taking Wednesday off, the Leafs will be able to find a few positives before facing Phoenix on Thursday. They have had a few good performances sprinkled among the bad ones of late and there is still more than half a season to play.
More than anything, they need to show a little consistency and show it soon.
"There’s pressure from Game 1 to Game 82," Raymond said. "At the end of the day, we’re professionals and we need to find a way inside this room. It comes upon us players to put the product on the ice."
If they don’t, it won’t be long before we have a real crisis on our hands.